Friday, July 31, 2015

Physics of the Future (a book review post)

For me, Physics of the Future was a bit of a research project. I have a couple of different sci-fi things in various stages, and I wanted to see how this stuff lined up with what I'm doing. As it turns out, pretty well. Although, I have to say, I do disagree with a few things, not that I'm the expert, though. Kaku is the physicist. However, I think the idea of a "space elevator" is a fantasy, and I don't really understand why people cling to it so hard.

Having said that, I do know that it's fantasies (ideas) that turn a lot of "science fiction" into plain old science. I did, after all, do a whole series on that during A-to-Z a few years ago.

But I digress...

So the premise of the book is that Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, would look into the actual science being developed today and, based on past progress in developments, make a projection (prediction) about the kinds of things we can see in the future. Assuming we, as a race, live long enough to see those things come to fruition. And, yes, he talks about that "if," too.

For me, Kaku spent too much time dwelling on the future of medicine. Not only does medicine get its own chapter (chapter three), but it's laced throughout the book. I get it. I do. People are concerned with medical advances that can allow them to live how they want to live with no negative consequences, and, actually, some of the research currently underway might make that possible. It is entirely possible that my generation will be the last generation to die and that the next generation (my kids) could have potentially unlimited lifespans. There's even an outside chance that some of those developments could happen before the end of my generation, but that would require a remarkable breakthrough and, still, probably only be available to the fabulously wealthy. Kaku is considerably older than me, so I can understand the focus. Still, he covered the same ground about early cancer identification at least half a dozen times.

The other thing he spent too much time on was magnetism. Kaku seems quite enamored of the idea of telepathically controlling the environment through the use of superconductors, and he refers to this a lot during the course of the book (much like the nanomachines which will detect cancer). The problem is that this relies on the accidental discovery of something which may not actually exist. Our current generation of superconductors weren't developed, they were happened upon, and he bases much of his magnetism predictions on serendipity.

He also seems to be overly optimistic about the future of mankind, at least from my perspective. He spends a considerable amount of time explaining why the "singularity" won't happen or, if it does, why we'll be able to control it. He makes a point about how, one day, the most sought after thing on the Internet will be wisdom, this after stating how humans are essentially the same as they've been since we became human. He expects ranting bloggers and funny cats to disappear as we all become enlightened, and I think he's been watching too much Star Trek. And that he doesn't really know humans very well if he thinks we (as a group) will give up funny cat videos. And blogger rants.

However, all of that said, the book is fascinating. The technology discussions are fascinating. And the chapter on the future of wealth is extremely fascinating. The unstated comparison of the US to the Ottoman Empire is especially compelling. Nutshell: At one point, the Ottoman Empire led the world in science... until it gave all of that up to embrace religious fundamentalism. Let me re-state that: At least 50% of America's leading scientists have come from other countries and more and more of them are, instead of staying here, returning to those countries after they've received their education. America, because of the deplorable state of public education, is not producing sufficiently educated people of science. It's not our focus anymore.

If you're at all interested in the book, now is the time to read it. Only four years away from publication, and parts of it are already becoming outdated. The section on self-driving cars is a good example. Current projections are that self-driving cars will be as common as smart phones within the next decade; Kaku doesn't really expect them to start even showing up until around 2030. He makes no mention of quantum communication and only mentions quantum computers as an unlikely option. IBM has just developed a computer chip that could completely change the computer industry. Warp fields have been created, too, another bit of science Kaku glosses over as being the least likely of options.

Still, it's fascinating. Even the stuff about the space elevator, but that's mostly because he spends time talking about carbon nanotubes during that part, and carbon nanotubes, if we can figure out how to make them long enough, are another technology that could completely change the world.

Of course, the drawback, even though Kaku has made it very accessible, is that it's very heavy on science. Well, it's all science, so I can see it being difficult for some people to get into. For whatever reason. But, you know, if you're writing any kind of science fiction, right now, this might be a book you want to have on your desk.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Cloak of Darkness" (Ep. 1.9)

-- Ignore your instincts at your peril.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

I'm going to lead on this one with the fact that James Marsters does a voice for this episode. That should have caught the eye of some of you pop culture/Joss Whedon people out there. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just move along. Move along.

Betrayal is one of the themes Star Wars returns to over and over again. Even from A New Hope, we have, "He betrayed and murdered your father," not to mention the betrayal by the clones against the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith and Vader's betrayal against the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. We encounter betrayal frequently, too, during the Clone Wars, this not even being the first episode dealing with betrayal just nine episodes into the first season.

I don't know what to say about all the betrayal. It's just part of the fabric. Against the background of the Clone Wars, you can't trust anyone. Well, okay, you can trust R2-D2 and you can trust Obi-Wan and you can trust Yoda. You don't really want to go putting money down on anyone else, though. I think that's why we encounter it so frequently, though, so that we understand that you can't trust anyone. And it doesn't matter how innocuous the "person" seems.

Another thing the Clone Wars series does well is to let us get to know Jedi we've only previously had glimpses of. This episode is a closer look at Luminara Unduli. Again (as with Plo Koon in the Malevolence episodes), we get our look at the Jedi through the eyes of Ahsoka. Luminara is less good at listening to Ahsoka than I think Ahsoka is used to and gives Ahsoka some orders that Ahsoka doesn't really agree with. There's not an inconsiderable amount of angst while Ahsoka tries to figure out whether to follow them.

And there's a great good cop/bad cop bit when Luminara and Ahsoka are interrogating a prisoner. Luminara, being the good cop, is trying to logic the prisoner into talking when Ahsoka goes all, "I'm gonna gut you like a fish" on the guy. Luminara, though, thinks Ahsoka is being serious and goes all teach-y on Ahsoka about proper Jedi ways. It's an interesting exchange.

All of that and Ventress makes an appearance. Things always get interesting when she's around.

It's a good, solid episode that fits well into the story flow and can probably even be watched without having seen other episodes. Probably.

Monday, July 27, 2015

There's Something About Mary (Doria Russell)

Earlier this year, Mary Doria Russell's latest book, Epitaph, was released. She was doing a book tour for it at the time and was scheduled to come through where I live...
But she got sick.
And cancelled her stop here.
And I really thought that was the end of it, because those kinds of things almost never get rescheduled especially when they're in smaller-ish cities and were free to begin with. But!
Being the cool person that she is, she rescheduled and showed up at our local book store earlier this month.

And that was pretty awesome because, now, I've met my top two favorite living traditionally published authors (the other being Neil Gaiman whom I met back in this post (and, yes, before I get any smart ass comments, I met him in that post; no, don't ask how that works; you wouldn't understand)).

Hmm... I'm not sure how I should refer to her. Mrs. Russell sounds too... I don't know. It's not that it sounds formal, exactly, but it sounds overly formal. But I can't just call her Mary. I mean, I'm pretty sure we're not on a first name basis. Well, anyway... She was a delight. Lively and exciting and an entertaining speaker. And you should all read her books.

Speaking of which, there were some interesting things about the event, things I don't really understand. First, my wife and I were almost the youngest people there (other than people who work at the book store), and that was really surprising to me. I mean, The Sparrow is science fiction (even if it's not shelved in the science fiction section of book stores (which, I guess, could be a problem)) so it, at least, ought to attract younger readers? I don't know. Maybe I just don't know how these things work.

Because, aside from the readers being on the older side, an awful lot of them seemed unfamiliar with Russell's work. Of the people that I spoke with, all of them were surprised that I've read all of Russell's books. To one woman I said, "There're only six," to which she seemed inordinately shocked. Like it was a huge deal that I had read six books. Of course, I speaking of that from a reading perspective, not a writing perspective. Six books is a lot to write, but I've read more than six books so far this summer, and the woman seemed to think six books should take, I don't know, years to read.

At any rate, it was an odd experience. When Gaiman was here, people I met and I talked about his various books and what we liked best, but I couldn't have that kind of conversation with the people at Russell's event because they were unfamiliar with the books. On the other hand, I got to tell them about what I like about her books and make recommendations about which ones to start with based on what they like.

Of course, The Sparrow is one of the three books on my list of books I think everyone should read.

My only regret about the event is that I couldn't remember where I'd put my first edition copy of Dreamers of the Day until afterward. You know, I put it away for "safekeeping," and I can never remember where anything I put away for safekeeping is when I need it. I did get my first edition of Epitaph signed along with my first edition paperback of Doc. Now, those are put away for "safekeeping," too. I hope that doesn't mean I'll never see them again. Of course, it doesn't! I did find Dreamers of the Day, after all; however, if there is ever any moment I want them, I won't remember where I've put them.

I've reviewed most of her books, so here are my links to the reviews:
The Sparrow
A Thread of Grace
Dreamers of the Day

Yes, I do know that I've left Children of God out, but I read it back before I was doing the whole blog thing, and I haven't re-read it since... a long time. Still, it's mentioned in some of the other reviews.

Look, if you consider yourself a serious reader, Mary Doria Russell is someone you should be reading. She does characters better than, maybe, any other author I've ever read (and, again, I read a lot). To try to put this in perspective, Dreamers of the Day is not my favorite of her books, but her depiction of T. E. Lawrence (you know, Lawrence of Arabia) is so strong and has hung with me so much that I'm reading his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And Doc feels like you're walking down the dusty streets of Dodge City right along with Holliday and Earp.

Just sayin'.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"The Colour Out of Space" (a book review post)

[Note: I am working my way through a complete collection of H. P. Lovecraft's works. Although I will give my thoughts about Lovecraft in a more general sense when I've finished the collection, I think it's worthwhile to look at the individual stories (or at least some of them) as I'm going through.]

"The Colour Out of Space" is what I'm coming to recognize as classic Lovecraft. A regular guy comes across something strange and starts investigating it and discovers some -- look, I'm just going to put it in the vernacular -- "weird ass shit." Weird ass shit that freaks the protagonist out and affects him for the rest of his life, the length of which doesn't always extend beyond the length of the story. So it is with "The Colour Out of Space."

"The Colour Out of Space" opens with a land surveyor out doing what land surveyors do because a reservoir is being built. Before going, he's warned about "the blasted heath" and how evil it is, but he put it down to local superstition. At one time, there had been a road going through it, but so evil did they believe it that that road had fallen into disuse, and a new one had been built that circled far around the evil place. Even with that, the surveyor thought nothing of the place... until he came upon it, at which point a great reluctance came upon him to enter it. But he had no choice and, so, traveled through the place on his business.

So fearsome was the place, and because he had not, yet, finished his surveying work, he asked the locals about it, but all he could get was half stories about strange days. Until he finally finds the person who can tell him the horrible story.

Because the story is being told about something that happened decades before, we never need to worry about the protagonist; however, that doesn't make the story any less horrifying. All we really know is that the locals are greatly looking forward to the reservoir and that "the blasted heath" will finally be consumed by the deep waters. We also know that after hearing the story, our protagonist vows that he will never drink of the waters that will come from that place.

Beyond that, you'll have to read for yourself.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ant-Man (a movie review post)

Decades ago, Isaac Asimov asserted that science fiction wasn't so much as its own genre as it was a vehicle for other genres. As there was much dissent, he set out to write a sci-fi detective novel which became the first of his robot novels, The Caves of Steel. It seems that Marvel has set out to prove the same thing about the super hero genre. Sure, there's the pure super hero stuff like The Avengers, but we've also seen a war movie, an espionage movie, and, now, a heist movie, among others.

So, yeah, Ant-Man is structured as a heist movie, which is pretty clever. It's not a straight heist, though, there's a little, I don't know, rom-com(?) added in. You know, whatever kind of movie it is where the guy who has messed up and alienated his family has to put it back together again. At any rate, as Scott Lang says in the movie, "It's not just a heist."

Speaking of Scott Lang, Lang was one of my few worries about the movie going into it. As I've noted in previous reviews of Marvel movies (especially Iron Man 3), I do understand that the universe of the Marvel movies is not the same as the one for the comics, but I couldn't understand why they weren't having Hank Pym be Ant-Man when he was going to be in the movie. It was baffling. BUT! I think they did an excellent job of threading the Ant-Man origin story into what they did in the movie. Actually, I really like what they did with that. It adds some extra layers to the movie than just doing an "origin story."

Also speaking of Scott Lang, Paul Rudd was great. Okay, so, I already really like Paul Rudd, but he was great in this role. This is another case of Marvel finding an actor who would really own the part and make it his, because that's what Rudd did. However, it was Michael Pena as Luis who almost stole the show. He was brilliant, and the voice-over stuff they did with him was hilarious.

Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily were both very good. Douglas probably about what you'd expect since he's always really solid. Lily was better than I expected because my main exposure to her has been in the horrible Hobbit movies, and, though those weren't her fault, her inclusion in those has been a sore point. I was also glad to see Wood Harris in the movie. His performance wasn't extraordinary or anything, but I like him as an actor, so it was good to see him in a high profile movie.

The only weak link was Corey Stoll who came off more as an over enthusiastic used car salesman trying to sell you a bad car than as a real villain. Fortunately, the movie didn't focus so much on him.

Also, the scene with the Falcon was awesome. I love Anthony Mackie in that role, so I was glad they included him. "It's really important to me that Cap never finds out about this."

Basically, this is another really solid Marvel movie and, while I would quite put it as high as Captain America or Iron Man on quality, it's close. Guardians of the Galaxy close. I would have gone right back in to watch it again if I could have.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"The Festival" (a book review post)

[Note: I am working my way through a complete collection of H. P. Lovecraft's works. Although I will give my thoughts about Lovecraft in a more general sense when I've finished the collection, I think it's worthwhile to look at the individual stories (or at least some of them) as I'm going through.]

So let's play pretend for a moment.

It's Christmas. Now, I don't know who you are or how you celebrate Christmas or the yule season, but, yet, that's what it is. You're descended from an ancient, reclusive people who live in a small fishing town in the northeast. Not many of them ever leave. Yet, somehow, whether it was your grandfather or your mother or whoever, one of your more immediate ancestors left that village. All you know is that once a century, your people, your family, are commanded to keep the Festival. You are the only one of any of the scattered ones of your people who return to keep the tradition.

And what you find there in that village of your people, that village that you have never before visited, is far from... normal.

Would you go back? Knowing that your parents or your grandparents, whoever it was who "escaped," is ignoring the call. All of your immediate family is ignoring the call of upholding the tradition. Would you go back?

"The Festival," by Lovecraft, is the story of a man who did go back. A man who finds stranger and stranger things the more he allows himself to be pulled along with the happenings of the Festival. A man who, in the end, is left to question... everything. Even his sanity.

The real power in this one, apart from Lovecraft's imagery, is the blending of the mundane with the fantastic. Everything is just normal enough for the protagonist to think that he's imagining things or that he's the one who's crazy.

All I know is if I ever get called to some out-of-the-way location for some ancient family tradition that I am going to do some major amounts of research before I go.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Bombad Jedi" (Ep. 1.8)

-- Heroes are made by the times.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

This is probably the episode that no one was waiting for, considering the general view of Jar Jar, that is. Which is not to say that the episode doesn't have its moment, because it does. It's just that most of those moments are slapstick.

The actual conflict in the episode revolves around someone close to Padme betraying her in order to hand her over to Nute Gunray, who is still seeking revenge against her because of the fallout of The Phantom Menace. The real question, though, is why was Padme taking Jar Jar with her on a diplomatic mission. Maybe she thought this was a safe one to take him along on considering that she was going to see someone she was close to. And, yes, we know that Jar Jar becomes part of Padme's diplomatic contingent even by the time of Attack of the Clones, but it's unclear what his role was supposed to be during this particular mission.

What his role ends up being is "Jedi rescuer" as the battle droids mistake him for a Jedi after he throws on a cloak to hide himself during his attempt to rescue the captured Padme. Hi-jinks, of course, ensue.

My issue with the episode has nothing to do with the actual hi-jinks. For what it is, the episode is generally amusing. The issue is that it feels thrown in in order to give some screen time to characters who have mostly been left out of the narrative to this point: Padme, C-3PO, and, even, Jar Jar. So, while the episode does have an important plot point, overall, it feels a little strained and as if it's a bit of comic relief in the very serious story arcs that have so far dominated the series.

This is not an episode I would recommend to a first time viewer, but it's enjoyable enough within the context of watching the series.

"The ship has been destroyed."
"Battle droids?"
"Jar Jar?"
"Jar Jar."